Ruth Eisenhour opened the padlock on the top of a wooden structure, swiped away some ants on its ledge and slid down into the crate-like contraption. She squatted and lopped off a couple branches of the blooming turtlehead plant.
"This is the host plant for the Baltimore checkerspot butterflies," she said, holding a flower in the palm of her hand. "They are becoming more and more scarce, which means the checkerspots have no place to lay their eggs. And therefore their population is decreasing."
The butterfly sanctuary is one of several projects Eisenhour has spearheaded during her tenure as a teacher at Harford Glen Environmental Education Center, a 360-acre facility in Bel Air where students get hands-on environmental science instruction. The site includes a lake, eight miles of hiking trails, classrooms, lodges and a dining hall.
And after 13 years of bringing nature to life for students, Eisenhour has earned recognition. She recently was named one of three Maryland finalists for an award from the National Science Foundation for science and math teachers.
Eisenhour will be honored this week in Ocean City, along with the state's other two science finalists. The Maryland winner will be selected in the coming months by a national panel and will be honored in Washington with others from around the nation in the spring.
"A lot of fun stuff has been happening," Eisenhour said of being nominated for the award. "It couldn't be better if I had received a letter saying I was chosen for the award."
Dennis Kirkwood, supervisor of science for the Harford County school system, nominated Eisenhour for the honor, known as the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
"She is innovative in the kinds of lessons she teaches," Kirkwood said. "She always finds ways to improve the curriculum and make it more engaging."
Each year, 108 science and math teachers from across the nation and the U.S. territories are recognized through the program and receive a trip to Washington to meet the president and receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation.
For Eisenhour, being nominated is honor enough.
"To think that people are recognizing Harford Glen for what we are doing out here, or that they think I am doing my job well, is award enough for me," she said.
Eisenhour discovered her affinity for the outdoors while attending Chesapeake Center Camp in Port Deposit as a youngster. After a couple of years as a camper, she took a job at the camp teaching swimming and horseback riding.
"I loved working with the kids," the 41-year-old Bel Air resident said. "And working outdoors came so naturally for me."
After high school, she attended James Madison University, where she earned a degree in elementary education in 1987, before becoming a fifth-grade teacher at Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air.
Then one day she took her class to Harford Glen for a four-day overnight program, where children are immersed in outdoor education.
Pretty quickly, she knew it was where she wanted to be.
"It was the job I spent my whole life training for," she said.
For starters, she was outdoors. And she relished the idea of teaching different students every day, though it's not without its challenges.
"I don't know the children that I work with," she said. "They come out here, and I have to immediately assess their prior knowledge and then try to teach them something in the short time I have to work with them."
But working in the outdoor environment has proved to be an effective teaching tool.
"The environment is immediately interesting to the students," she said. "And I believe every child can learn about the environment. But they can't learn about it unless they are out in it."
The pairing of the teacher and the subject is a perfect fit, said Mark Herzog, assistant supervisor of science for county schools.
"Ruth has an awareness of what children need and really makes everyone feel comfortable and welcome when they come to Harford Glen," he said.
Eisenhour said that comes from being passionate about her job.
"I believe in what I do, and I want to share this place and myself with the children," Eisenhour said.
One trait that distinguishes Eisenhour, who has been teaching for 19 years, is that she's a lifelong learner, Herzog said.
"She's always dreaming up new ways to present things that have been around forever," he said. "She's always modifying and tinkering with the program."
And Eisenhour has an enthusiasm for the work that is infectious, he said.
"There's a level of excitement she brings to her teaching every day that is her baseline," he said. "She loves life and she loves teaching. She inspires everyone on the staff - even me - every day."